Liberation or exploitation? Radical politics or violent nihilism? Mature sexuality or child pornography? Modernist narrative or incoherent narrative? Trailblazer or piece of crap? Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback answers to any and all of these descriptions. The Black Panthers made it mandatory viewing, while Ebony magazine denounced it. Moviegoers responded with cheers or outrage. And, frankly, I’m not taking sides.
But three matters are beyond debate: 1. It was like nothing seen before in a commercial movie house. 2. It instantly shifted the dominant tone of black films from liberal to anarchist, from uplifting message movies to fables of ghetto smarts and stickin’ it to the man. 3. The movie was an out-of-nowhere hit, earning about $20 million on Van Peebles’ personal $50,000 investment. Its success spawned a new and lasting genre: blaxploitation, with Superfly Black Caesar and Menace II Society and Bad Boys and dozen of others as its brawling progeny. All these factors make Sweet Sweetback, without question or competition, the most influential movie by a black filmmaker.
Van Peebles, a novelist who moved to France, where he directed and starred in the very genteel romance Story of a Three Day Pass, said he made Baad Asssss because he wanted to see a slice of black society, of black manhood, never, ever shown on the screen. Sweet Sweetback — his nickname is the ultimate compliment from one of his many bed partners — is not just an antihero, he’s the anti-Sidney. To some blacks, the Poitier figure was a messiah of masochism, enduring insults from ignorant whites so that other whites, in the audience, would be convinced that he was superior enough to be allowed to buy a house next to them, He was Martin Luther King, Jr., to Sweetback’s…whom? Not Malcolm X so much as Malcolm Little, the violent pimp who had to go to jail and be converted to Black Islam before he could preach his more elevated doctrine. Sweetback’s message: If you want it, take it. If it feels good, do it. And if whites in the theater feel angered or threatened, who cares? Let them feel excluded from the movie, as blacks did from virtually every film made before this one.
Sweetback (played by Van Peebles, who also wrote, produced, directed, edited and scored the movie) is a sex hustler, and not one like the soulful yokel Joe Buck of Midnight Cowboy. Having sex for money doesn’t demean him; it expresses him. At first he has an easy understanding with the police: they arrest him, he gets out. One night he agrees to be taken in just so they can make their quota. But on their way to the station, the cops pick up, then beat up, a black revolutionary. That sets Sweetback on his crimson revenge spree, and gets the cops to pursuing him in the chase that consumes the rest of the film. In structure, Sweetback is close to Native Son: ghetto guy is charged with an act of unpremeditated violence and goes on the run. The difference here: he gets away! The black man isn’t killed for transgressing the white man’s law. Even more improbably, Van Peebles got away with, profited greatly from, making this little Molotov cocktail of a movie.
And the child pornography? In an early scene we see a boy having sex with an adult woman. The kid was played by Van Peebles’ son Mario, who seems to have survived OK. He became an excellent actor, and his first film behind the camera, New Jack City, is one of the most vivid and stylish directorial debuts I know.
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